Arguably the best movie of Australia’s New Wave is 1980’s Breaker Morant. As the title character in Director Bruce Beresford’s movie, Woodward delivers a performance with such psychic weight and that it will stay in your mind and heart long afterwards.
The story takes place in the waning days of the Boer War, where the battered but still undefeated Dutch immigrant guerrillas continue to resist a much larger British force. To face down the remaining renegades and their ungentlemanly military tactics, the British create an unconventional counter-insurgency force called the Bushveldt Carbineers. The Carbineers are mainly colonials, and include the poetry-writing, cynical and heroic Lt. Morant (Woodward), the free-spirited and lusty Lt. Hancock (Bryan Brown), and idealistic junior officer George Witton, who believes in the goodness of The Empire (Lewis Fitz-Gerald). As the film opens, these three Australians are being court-martialled for shooting Boer prisoners. That they committed the act is never in doubt, but they claim they were following orders from the British high command. Meanwhile, because the British see a conviction as essential for facilitating a peace settlement, they deny complicity and stack the proceedings against the defendants in every way possible.
This is the movie that brought Bruce Beresford to the attention of Hollywood, where he later directed Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy. There are a few overly theatrical moments in the film, but overall this is highly accomplished directorial work by Beresford. He also contributed to the superb screenplay, along with Kenneth Ross (who wrote the play), Jonathan Hardy and David Stephens.
Under Beresford’s watchful eye, the entire cast is riveting, including the three actors playing the accused and Jack Thompson as their initially unpromising but ultimately crafty defense counsel. The smaller parts are also well-turned, with not a weak performance anywhere.
Woodward, though British by birth, had a long lasting affinity for Australia and could claim many fans there (including from his music hall tours as a singer) before he made this film. He deservedly expanded that fan base with his bravura performance in Breaker Morant, not just in Australia but world wide. His acting here recalls Michael Kitchen’s style in that he is the most magnetic when he is not speaking. Sadness, pain and well-earned disillusionment are visible in his gestures, his eyes, and his weather-beaten mien. Foreknowledge of doom hangs over his every scene in this film.
Donald McAlpine’s cinematography, with Australia standing in for South Africa, is also a major asset. Shooting in lovely physical terrain, he did everything he could with lenses, filters and exposures to emphasize its bleakness. Lush and colorful outdoor scenes would have otherwise contrasted too much with the downbeat tone of the story.
The film also contains intriguing historical nuggets about the Boer War, the conflict that opened the bloodiest century of military conflict in human history. The war gave us the word “commando” and the term “concentration camp”. The Carbineers were the first special forces unit to employ COIN tactics. And the court-martial portrayed actually happened, although the film is based on a book (“Scapegoats of the Empire”) which told the story entirely from the side of the accused and therefore may not be completely accurate.
Breaker Morant is a devastating, brilliant piece of cinema, a Caine Mutiny of its time. Australia cinema has clearly arrived on the world stage.